12. Sell Unneeded Federal Land

A Plan to Renew the Promise of American Life, Plank 12

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Plank 12. Sell unneeded federal land.


Specific Recommendations

12.1. Sell all unneeded federal land immediately to the states or the private sector, but take special care to protect national parks and other precious federal lands from human damage and commercial development. Specifically: 1) Lease lands designated as precious to the states under tight federal restrictions and supervision, for a period not to exceed 99 years. 2) During this transitional lease period, propose and submit to the states a constitutional amendment granting Congress a specific power to create and maintain national parks, national forests, recreation areas, wildlife refuges, grasslands, etc., regardless of state boundaries. 3) Include in the amendment a hard cap on the total size of the federal land portfolio (say, a limit of no more than 10 percent of the surface area of the United States and no more than 10 percent of any one state without the consent of that state). 4) At the end of the lease period, if the amendment has not been ratified, presume that the American people trust the states to manage these treasures and sell the aforementioned lands to the states in fee simple.


Explanation

The purpose of this plank is to shift power back to the states and the people. The federal government doesn’t need to own a lot of land. It should only own what it needs for constitutional purposes. It currently owns nearly 30 percent of the surface area of the United States, at least 654 million acres.

Federal land holdings are concentrated in the western half of the continent. Uncle Sam owns one of out every two acres in the West. Mystifyingly, the government continues to purchase land: federal holdings have grown by 90 million acres since 1997. In many states, the feds own the majority of the state: for instance, 80 percent of Nevada, 57 percent of Utah, and 53 percent of Oregon. In those states, federal bureaucracies have more say over land use than do the people who actually live there.

The Framers of the Constitution never intended for the central government to hold large land-holdings in perpetuity. The government should not own lands it doesn’t need for constitutional purposes.

How do we know the Founders’ intentions? From the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (as amended in 1789), which provides for an orderly devolution of millions of acres of federally held lands “northwest of the river Ohio,” to the states and to individuals. (The Ordinance is traditionally considered one of the four organic acts of the Union, along with the Declaration, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution). We also know the actual congressional practice prior to the Civil War, which was to form new states from federally owned lands, after a temporary period during which territorial inhabitants would establish their own governments. The land was to be handed over to the state government or sold directly to settlers, and Congress made solemn promises to this effect. This policy was interrupted in the latter half of the nineteenth century, leaving much of the West in federal possession. In 1976 Congress abandoned even the pretense of keeping its promises to the states and declared the western lands federal property forever.

The Founders’ policy should be resumed.

1. Sell and lease unneeded federal land.

Congress should sell all land not needed for constitutional purposes to the states, or private individuals, as rapidly as circumstances permit, in fee simple (i.e., permanently, without conditions or restrictions on its use). But in cases where it seems desirable to protect the land from human development (such as national parks, national forests, recreation areas, wildlife refuges, and perhaps some range lands and wasteland), the land should be leased to the state in which it lies, for a period not to exceed ninety-nine years. At the end of the lease, if a constitutional amendment has not been ratified granting Congress a power to create and maintain national parks, etc., the land should be transferred to the state in which it lies.

2. Propose a constitutional amendment.

During the lease period, a constitutional amendment should be proposed expressly granting to Congress a power to maintain national parks, national forests, recreation areas, wildlife refuges, range lands, and wasteland, regardless of state boundaries. The amendment would ideally contain a hard cap on the total size of the federal land portfolio (say, a limit of no more than 10 percent of the surface area of the United States and no more than 10 percent of any one state, except with the consent of that state). When the constitutional amendment is ratified, the federal government would regain immediate ownership. If the amendment has not been adopted by the time the lease expires, then each state gains full possession of the land within its borders.

The Constitution assumes that the states can be trusted to protect natural treasures lying within their own borders. Certainly, under this proposal, all states would come under strong pressure to do so. If the public doesn’t really trust the states, it has a remedy: a constitutional amendment like the one proposed here.


Constitutional Amendments

This plank recommends one constitutional amendment, to grant Congress an express power to create and maintain national parks, national forests, recreation areas, wildlife refuges, range lands, and wasteland, up to a limit of no more than 10 percent of the surface area of the United States and no more than 10 percent of any one state without the consent of that state.


Benefits

Will reduce federal micromanagement of the states and private sector.

Will enrich all Americans through a more efficient use of land and natural resources.


Summary

Plank 11     Contents     Plank 13

Revised: October 3, 2015.

First published: June 21, 2013.

Author: Dean Clancy.

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